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The True Gift of Inquiry

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Someone emailed me with the following question:

I feel like I am getting the hang of being with the feeling when fear or anger or other difficult emotions arise. It is a kind of burning, and I've been noticing the thought or story associated with the feeling, then letting go of the thoughts and letting it burn. When I do this, I find that the difficult emotion is really just energy, and when I allow it, it is actually invigorating.

My question is how do I know how long to stay with the feeling? Sometimes it turns to pure energy and goes away. Other times with more deeply rooted emotions, it doesn't go away. When it doesn't go away, should I try to devote hours to being with it? Sometimes I'll sit with a feeling for a while, but then I'll have to go to work or attend to other everyday matters. I can still allow the feeling, but it is more difficult to concentrate and fully allow it.

Could you please share your thoughts on how to approach this. I feel like I understand the practice of being with feelings, but I don't understand the timing.

And here is my response:

Sorry to take a while to get back to you. It sounds like you are definitely getting the hang of being with feelings. As for how long to stay with a feeling, there really is no formula for how long and also no formula for what happens when you do stay with a feeling longer. Every experience is unique. Sometimes the energy of the feeling releases or dissolves and a deeper level or dimension of your inner experience is revealed. Sometimes you find another feeling under the one that is releasing. Sometimes you find a more essential quality like peace or joy. And sometimes you just stay with a feeling for a while and not much seems to happen. In every case, it is working perfectly. There is a deep intelligence within your Being that knows exactly how to unfold each experience. The more you can just stay with whatever happens and let go of any ideas or expectations about what is supposed to happen, the more this inner intelligence can work.

And again there is no formula for how long. I would invite you to just follow whatever feels true to you in terms of how long to do this process, and how to balance it with the other demands of your life. Remember the truth is whatever opens your heart and expands your sense of "self" and also whatever quiets your mind. So you can just notice if it feels true to stay with a feeling a little longer, or if it feels truer right now to move on to another activity. And of course it is fine to continue to keep some awareness on the inner experiences even as you engage in other activities.

Finally I would add that the real value of staying with feelings is not actually the results you experience. Ultimately the point of being with feelings is not to resolve or get rid of uncomfortable feelings even though this kind of open-ended inquiry can have this effect. The real point of this practice of awareness is to realize the powerful mystery of awareness itself. What is this that can notice and observe a feeling? What does it mean that you can choose to stay with a feeling? What is awareness? What is aware?

In some ways spiritual seekers are so busy digging for some imagined buried treasure that they do not notice that the shovel they are digging with (awareness) is covered with large diamonds and rubies. The treasure is already in your hands! What a miracle this attention is that you use to stay with a feeling. Do not overlook the immense value of the awareness that is already here in every moment.

Focus in Meditation and Spiritual Practice

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Someone sent me the following message on Facebook:

I have to admit that I often find myself  NOT wanting to take responsibility, not wanting to do the practice, not wanting to do the inner work to feel whatever pain may be there. And find myself rather - jumping from place to place and trying to avoid it as much as possible.

Another thing is that I find it so incredibly difficult to focus. And I realize that maybe this seemingly lack of focus could stem also from not wanting to feel whatever needs to be felt or to think deeply about my life and take actions in a responsible way.

And here is my response:

As always your questions are good ones.

And I would offer two seemingly opposite, but actually complimentary, suggestions for the arising of resistance or a reluctance to do the work and also for your lack of focus. The first possibility when there is resistance or a lack of focus is to just try harder. You just keep bringing yourself back to the practice or object of your focus whether it is a meditative practice or a form of inquiry or inner work. If a distraction comes up, you notice it and then bring yourself back to the inner process or whatever you need to focus on. This approach requires a lot of effort and it is also bound to fail. But that does not mean it is not worthwhile. In the process of failing, you also strengthen your capacity to concentrate and focus. It is like building an inner spiritual muscle that you can then use to stay with the process longer and longer.

However it helps to know that this approach is doomed to failure, so that you do not have unrealistic expectations. It is kind of like weight lifting where you are supposed to lift the weight until your muscle simply cannot do another repetition. That is how you strengthen the physical muscles, and that is how you strengthen your inner spiritual muscle; by pushing it beyond your current capacity. And just as you can never build your physical muscle to the point where it can continue lifting a heavy weight forever, so you can just know that you will never reach a point where you can focus indefinitely. And just like even a well trained physical muscle can reach its limit fairly quickly, so too you will find that even as you build your ability to focus and persist, that most of the time you will still only be able to focus for a short while. And it will still require a lot of effort to push yourself in this way.

So this is where the other possibility comes in. When you are exhausted or unable to push yourself anymore, then there is another easier way to practice. You can just explore the distractions. If a resistance or reluctance to look within arises, then you can become curious about that. What is it like to not want to do the work? How do you know you don't want to do it? Is there a feeling in your body? Is there something you say to yourself or picture in your mind? If you had to teach me how to resist the process, how would you teach me to do it also?

Similarly, if you cannot focus on something even after you have pushed yourself to focus on it, then you can focus on the experience of not being able to focus. What is that like? Where does your attention go instead? Can you focus on not wanting to focus? Can you focus on the distractions that come up? What is the urge to do something else like? How do you even know if you are focusing or not?

Often, you will find that you can focus easily if you just let yourself focus on whatever is actually arising in this moment. Instead of trying to focus on a meditation or task, just let yourself focus more on your daydreams, feelings, restlessness, discouragement, confusion, desire or whatever is appearing in your awareness right now. And then if you cannot stay focused on that, just let your focus move onto the next experience. You may discover that there always is a focus to your awareness, but it just likes to move around a lot.

This second approach is more like stretching a muscle rather than strengthening it. When stretching a muscle, you just relax and allow the muscle to open and expand. It does not work to push or strain to try and stretch the muscle. And so sometimes it is OK to let your awareness move however it moves. Make it your practice to be very distracted whenever your effort to focus and practice fails.

These two approaches are exactly opposite. In one you push with the maximum amount of effort, and in the other you exert as little effort as possible by simply directing your awareness where it is already going. By using both of these approaches, you will develop the greatest strength, range and flexibility of awareness possible. But even that is not really the goal because your awareness already has limitless strength and flexibility. Ultimately what you discover through all of this effort is that your awareness is already fine just the way it is, and has always been perfectly fine. This is the simple realization that all of your effort is in service to. By using this "muscle" called awareness in every way possible, you eventually realize the perfect nature of awareness itself. It is not what you can do with awareness that matters, what matters is the recognition that awareness is already perfect, and that awareness is what you really are.


No Formula for Spiritual Awakening

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Someone wrote to me sharing how their life is getting more difficult and how it makes them question the wisdom of pursuing the path of inquiry. Here is my response:

There is no formula to spiritual enlightenment. It is OK to just let things fall apart, and it is OK to do something to make something better. You do learn and unfold in either case.

We had a Harvard researcher here the other day who is studying nondual awareness. In telling us how he got into studying it he described how he had created a model for all the different spiritual practices and who they work for and who they don't work for. There were a few interesting points:

1-His model does not yet explain the deepest nondual states which is why he is now studying them.
2- Within duality, if someone does the correct spiritual practice for them, then their life seems to flow and everything works out well.
3-If they do the "wrong" spiritual practice for them their life starts to fall apart.
4-Even if they do the "right" practice for them, after a while it stops working and then if they keep doing it their life falls apart.
5- Often it is when someone's life falls apart that they drop into the deeper nondual places in their being, but even this is not a formula. Sometimes their life just falls apart until they stumble upon a different approach that is now right for them and their life starts to "work" again.
6-Again his model does not yet explain spiritual enlightenment or the nondual experience nor does it yet identify the "way" to get a spiritual awakening or what ways work and don't work for specific people.

This all suggests to me that at least for now, the deepest spiritual awakenings are still purely a matter of grace. And it also suggests to stay open and curious no matter what happens. Falling apart might be the best thing that ever happens to you, and it also does not hurt to try any process or spiritual practice to see if it allows your life to work again. He has also found people who gradually shifted from process to process that seemed to allow their life to work out well for them until they then dropped off into the nondual dimension.

Talk about no formula!


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Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self by Nirmala.

Nothing Personal leads you to the experience of your true nature and helps you explore its depth. Through exposition, questions and dialogues, it brings you to a place of realization of the Truth: you are the spacious Awareness in which everything appears.

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